Sunday, June 30, 2013

Penelope's Top 100

Today I found my Entertainment Weekly in Derrick's office, and the cover story was "The 100 All-Time Greatest."

Meanwhile, Penelope had just finished watching Clue, which she will happily watch multiple times in the same day (although she hadn't seen it for a couple of weeks at least because we've been playing Mario Brothers, swimming, and tearing through the Bunnicula books)...

Me: Hmmm...Entertainment Weekly is going to tell us the one hundred all time greatest movies...
Penelope: (with great confidence) Clue is the greatest movie there is. (Pauses) Well, what I mean is, Clue is the greatest movie to me. Clue is my greatest movie.
Me: What other movies would you put on your list?
Penelope: The Lion King.
Me: What else?
Penelope: (long pause) What else movies are there?

After some thought, she has added Tangled (but not the witch parts), Winnie the Pooh (the Backson and the other ones), Those Fantasias, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, Monsters, Inc ("But I mean the original. Do you understand me? I'm not saying the other one isn't good, but I am talking about the original for the greatest.") And just now she thought of Wreck It Ralph, The Avengers, and Star Wars (apparently the entire franchise).

She's so funny. I've been saying, "You saw X," and she'll reply, "I did see that..." and pointedly not add it. She doesn't even remember Because of Winn Dixie, and she used to watch that every day when she was two.

I've been thinking how funny it is that Penelope can name so few movies considering how many she's seen.  Then again, at home, I hardly ever watch movies with her (but I know she and Grandma watch movies).  In the past, Nellie and I have definitely watched more movies, but she's been so interested in playing video games recently that usually we do that together when we're not reading, doing her reading, walking, swimming, or playing board games.

Just now we ran to Old Navy to pick her up an outfit for the Fourth of July.  When we got home, I asked her, "What are your favorite books?"  She rattled off so many that I had to stop her and ask, "Okay, but if you could only take five books, and you were stranded on a desert island, what would you take?"

Here are her "five" books.  Clearly we need to work on her counting next:

1. Bunnicula (series)
2. Rosario + Vampire (she means the manga, every book)
3.  Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (series)
4.  Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears
5. Eight Spinning Planets
5. Little Monster's Bedtime Book
5. Scooby Doo (This confuses me because we don't have any really good Scooby Doo books)
5. "The Raven"

Here's her full list (before I stopped her):

The Bunnicula Series
Eight Spinning Planets
The Rosario + Vampire series
The Gruffalo
Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People's Ears
Donald Duck and the Witch Next Door
Amelia Bedelia and the Baby
Eating the Alphabet
Room on the Broom
Hippos Go Berserk
Biscuit Goes to School
Charlie Cook's Favorite Book
Anansi the Spider
Where Does the Butterfly Go When it Rains?
Mother Goose
Pop Up London
The Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series
Where the Wild Things Are
Milk and Cookies
Edgar Allan Poe poem book
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom
One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish
The Tale of Custard the Dragon
Ten Timid Ghosts
In the Haunted House
Aesop's Fables
The Lion and the Little Red Bird
If I Were a Lion
The Gruffalo's Child
The Very Best Home for Me
The Magic Grinder
The Snowy Day
Max and Ruby books
The Color Kittens
The Poky Little Puppy Books
One Witch
The Shy Little Kitten
Little Monsters Bedtime Book
Scooby Doo and the Camping Caper (This can't be true because we've hardly read this book, but she said Scooby Doo, and this is the only one we have that I'll read.)
There's No Such Thing as a Dragon
Don't Let the Pigeon Stay Up Late
All of her poetry books
The vampire book about Blood
Ancient Egyptian Gods and Goddesses...

I guess the lesson is that Penelope is much less critical of books than movies!

Penelope's Favorite Songs:
Whoop 'em Gangnam Style (probably because Grayson finds a new version or parody every twenty seconds, or at least he did a few weeks ago)
I'm Sexy and I Know It
Can You Feel the Love Tonight?
I Have a Dream (from Tangled)
Shake, Rattle, and Roll

Friday, June 28, 2013

Penelope's Sentences

1.  Dinah went to a fish market, and she only bought fish because that's all they sold.  The fish bit her, and she went home, screaming all the way home, and she shook the fish off her arm and into the trash.

2.  Dinah pulled out some pieces of her fur, and she made directions to Texas with them.  She made a map to Texas just for herself.

3.  Dinah found this garage, and she went inside it to play, but then the door closed, and the lights went out.  Then bats came.  Then vampires came.  And then a bumble bee came and splashed honey on her.  Then a honey bee came and sucked the honey off.  He flew around everywhere, and she tried to swat him until she got so worn out, she died.  "Finally," said Spooky Kitty, "I have killed Dinah!"  But I brought her back to life as a stuffed animal because I loved her and was watching over her the whole time.

4.  Dinah found a fish market.  And when she went in, a fish was standing there.  When she tapped it, it gave her directions to a garage where there was a car to drive her to the fish cabinet.  That's where the fish keeps all his fishes.  Dinah ate some and kept that car forever.

Random Ramblings

Nellie and I just started reading the first book of the Tales from the House of Bunnicula series.  All she ever wants to read is Bunnicula, and we've reread all of those so many times that it seemed better to switch to something a little fresher.  The book is extremely funny, though I prefer Harold's narration to Howie's third person.  I can't deny that it's hilarious, though.  Penelope seems enchanted--she laughed out loud like a maniac for the entire duration of the attack by the giant squid--and the book is great for getting kids interested in writing.  (I does seem like kind of a slam of the Goosebumps series, though.  I mean James Howe seems to be saying, "A scatterbrained puppy trying his paw at writing for the first time could have written this!"  But he proves himself right, so I suppose that's all that matters.)

In other news, we've been swimming pretty much every day this week.  Penelope loves to finish off our time in my pool by swimming back and forth between Derrick and me.  She's getting better and better and should be actually be keeping her head above water very soon (but when she jumps off my legs, she too often slides down and digs into my kneecaps, so we're going to have to find a different launching pose on my side).  Her kicks are almost perfect, and she holds her breath the whole time, so even though she doesn't keep herself above water, she doesn't choke.  She basically just needs to work on using her arms consistently.  And also, she should probably stop deliberately gulping in a mouthful of water when she sets off in my direction because I can't say I care too much for her spitting it in my face and laughing when she reaches me.  We coaxed Grandma into the pool with us today, too, and she was surprised by how nice it is.  Dad worked till almost eleven tonight, so the rest of us had macaroni and cheese and played Super Luigi instead of watching Frasier (like we've been doing in the non-Grayson evenings).

I'm also pretty excited because we decided to go to Padre Island for a few days in mid-July and just got that all booked today.  Originally, we were going to stay in Corpus Christi, but then we decided to stay on South Padre Island because we all enjoy the water so much, plus there's so much animal life to explore there.  It should be a blast, even though it's a bit of a drive.

I'm not sure yet what we're doing for the Fourth of July yet.  Gray should be back from Atlanta then, and I think he's supposed to be here, and then Merry and Matt are coming sometime that weekend.  I suppose I need to think up something fun pretty fast!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Penelope's Sentences

1.  Dinah's friend Cookie ate veggies because she was a vegetarian.

2.  Somebody sent Pupcake a letter that said, "You're going to die, Pupcake."  He freaked out, but then he calmed down because his parents told him to.

3.  The man who murdered all the pets was lying when he said he wasn't going to kill them.

4.  Dinah and Pupcake and Cookie calmed down because the guy who said he was going to kill them probably was lying.  They all said they were vegetarians, but they were lying because most pets eat meat, so people lie all the time.

We're trying a new activity after our reading--opposites.

Me: What's the opposite of always?
Penelope: Nolways?
Me: Well, you may have something there, but I was thinking of never.  What's the opposite of lie?
Penelope: I don't know.
Me: I never lie.  I always...?
Penelope: Lie?
Me: No, I just said, "I never lie."
Penelope: But maybe that was a lie.  So how can we ever believe you now?  And when are you going to get me more goldfish crackers?

Me: What's the opposite of...(I try to think)?
Penelope: Fertilizer?
Me: Fertilizer?!  What is the opposite of "fertilizer"?
Penelope: Poop.
Me: No fertilizer is poop.
Penelope: Fertilizer is poop?!  Well I am shocked!

Me: What rhymes with "kitten"?
Penelope: Mitten, spittin', bitten, fittin', quittin', splittin'...Ooh!  Britain!  Don't forget Britain.
Me: Good!  (to clarify that she isn't just nonsense rhyming) What's Britain?
Penelope:'s something very...English.  I think only English people know for sure.  (suddenly thinks) Hey what about Tintin?
Me: Tintin doesn't quite rhyme.
Penelope: Well, he's close enough for me!

A Playdate with Will

Nellie and I went over to Christina's today for a playdate with Will and Sylvie.  (She played with Will, and while they were in his room and Christina was making dinner, I played with Sylvie.)  I thought since Penelope is so shy, it might be good to give the kids a little space so they can work out their own dynamic.

Even though Penelope was very quiet the entire time we were there, apparently she had a blast.  I'll write more about it tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Summer Movie Diary: World War Z

Date: June 25, 2013
Time: 7:05 pm
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lake Creek
Company: Derrick
Food: too much popcorn, Espresso shake
Runtime:  1 hour, 55 minutes
Rating: PG-13
Director:  Marc Forster

Quick Impressions:
Last night as I lay awake despite my best efforts to sleep, I got a random flash of a scene from the movie Keeping the Faith (which I haven’t seen in thirteen years).  Out of nowhere, I thought, “It’s so sad that for Mel Brooks that Anne Bancroft died.  I wonder if they had any famous kids?”  The answer is “yes.”  Their son Max Brooks wrote the book World War Z on which the movie is based.  I didn’t know that until I got home tonight and my mother mentioned that my sister had told her, adding, “Apparently, he wanted to tell a story about bringing all the people of the world together.”  Mission accomplished, Max Brooks.  That was definitely the message I got from the film.  We all need to work together to save our world from unthinkable dangers that we prefer to deny are coming.  I think I’ll read your book now.

In between mesmerizing, pulse-pounding, visceral yet oddly artistic chase scenes (which are the backbone of the movie), World War Z actually parcels out some genuinely intriguing ideas.  (That’s nice because it keeps your intellect busy as you react instinctually to the captivating chase scenes.)

Not having read the book first, I didn’t know what to expect from World War Z.  Well, I mean, I expected Brad Pitt and zombies, and it definitely delivers that.  And from the opening credits, my expectations enlarged to include that really charismatic cancer patient from Flight (James Badge Dale), the “other” Cabin in the Woods screenwriter (Drew Goddard), hmm the Prometheus guy (Damon Lindelof), and…the director of Finding Neverland!!!  I was actually really excited to see Marc Forster’s name pop up as the director.  That gave me high hopes.  I usually like the films he helms.  (Finding Neverland, in fact, is one of those rare films that I saw multiple times in the theater.  Normally I’m more of a “see as many releases as possible once” type.)

And as it turns out, I did like World War Z, very much actually.  It’s just the right mix of popcorn flick, serious cinematic art, Brad Pitt vehicle, and thought-provoking commentary on our times.  (Part of me wants to add Jurassic Park homage, but I’ll refrain because when I mentioned to my husband how similar the final act was to the ending of Jurassic Park, he didn’t seem to be right there with me.  So maybe it’s just me.  Don’t get me wrong.  The premise isn’t similar—it’s just the way the last big action scene looks and sounds.  Viscerally, it’s Jurassic Park all over again, but in terms of actual plot, something entirely different is going on.)

The Good:
Watching, I couldn’t help but wonder, Is this what Brad Pitt’s real life is like?  He travels the world, walking around in casual clothes, asking questions, thinking about his kids, avoiding the hordes of slobbering, soulless zombies who chomp their teeth for a bite of his supple Brad Pitt flesh (you know, the paparazzi)? Didn’t Angelina Jolie used to work for the UN? I’m pretty sure she was a goodwill ambassador.

Without a doubt, Brad Pitt is the perfect star to carry this movie.  (Basically, he’s the only star.  Besides Pitt, the two biggest names in the cast are probably Matthew Fox and David Morse.)  But watching the trailers, I never thought the lack of other stars was odd.  Brad Pitt is one of the few people big enough to open a movie as the star.  He’s a talented, charismatic actor who has proven himself equally capable of carrying summer blockbusters and Oscar-baity-stuff.  My sister (who practically had a shrine to him when she was in junior high) thinks that he’s losing his looks, but I find him more attractive as he ages.  He has a wonderful everyman quality, pretty bizarre considering that he’s also possibly the most paparazzi-chased, blogged-about leading man in the world.  (When I try to think of someone to rival him for that dubious honor, I only come up with Tom Cruise.  I’m sure there are others, but not many at that level.) 

Anyway, Pitt is perfect as (no longer) retired UN specialist Gerry Lane (at least to someone who has not read the book).   World War Z trailers promised me Brad Pitt on the run from zombies, and the film certainly delivers that.  If it had delivered only that, frankly, I would have been satisfied.

But despite the less than star-studded cast, World War Z actually gives us a delightfully rich ensemble.  Pitt is definitely the star, but he’s joined by some of the most fresh, compelling, original, varied supporting characters in recent memory.  I flat out loved several of the other characters in this film and the performances of the actors portraying them. 

For me, Daniella Kertesz as Segen was such a nice surprise.  How often does a big budget popcorn movie surprise us with a female character who is not there as a potential love interest/sex object?  Usually if a female is not going to be a love interest, she’s there as some type of foil for the actual love interest, and/or a villain, and if neither of those things, she’s some kind of comic relief (i.e. she’s in an action scenario but she’s really girly and can’t stop talking and squealing).  But this character is actually pretty interesting just as a person.  She gets quite a bit of development, and it’s almost all non-verbal.  She also manages to be tough without becoming a clich├ęd just-one-of-the-(but-tougher-than)-guys caricature, the remaining possibility for a stock female action character.  I really liked her.

There’s another great female character in the movie, too.  As one of the WHO doctors in Cardiff, Ruth Negga was just so compelling.  I found her fascinating and really likable.  Her colleagues (particularly Peter Capaldi and Pierfrancesco Favino) are pretty great, too, particularly when they’re giving off a sinister, mysterious vibe, like they’ve wandered in from some horror movie set in Not London.  (How many great old horror movies are there where the protagonist leaves London for parts unknown and runs into trouble and sinister weirdos?)

Fana Mokoena is quite good, too, as Thierry Umutoni, Gerry’s boss at the UN.  (“Boss at the UN” sounds a little informal, but you get the idea.)  Mokoena has few scenes and limited lines, but the character and Gerry Lane clearly have a long, complicated past, and Mokoena manages to convey surprising emotion non-verbally.

I guess what I really love is that all of these characters seem to be coming from somewhere.  They don’t just show up to participate.  They all have a history, a life, a backstory (as people do), and even though we don’t have time in this story to find out in great detail where they all come from, they all behave as if they’re actual people influenced by things that have happened to them before, and headed somewhere important to them in the future.  The characters feel real.

Too often, when you assemble a large international cast, the emphasis on the cast’s amazing diversity is too pointed and awkward and eclipses all the characters as individuals.  But these people aren’t making a great show of being diverse.  They just genuinely are a very diverse group of people working together for a common good, and they come across as extremely real individuals.

The least interesting character is Lane’s wife Karin, but the actress (Mireille Enos) does a good job portraying her in a performance that shows the intensity and difficulty of just sitting and waiting helplessly by the phone.

Funniest Scene:
This is not a funny movie.  I am sure there must be jokes, but I don’t remember any.  It’s pretty intense right from the start.

But there are some darkly funny moments.  What happens to the scientist (I mean Dr. Fassbach played by Elyes Gabel) is definitely amusing with enough detachment.  Not funny haha, more ironic (and that mainly in the Alanis Morisette sense of being extremely inconvenient).  I honestly did not see that coming.  (“Who would have thought?  It figures!”)  It makes the movie so much better because it’s so unexpected and yet so likely.  Dr. Fassbach’s little adventure seems the most likely outcome for me if I ever had the unlikely honor of becoming a crucial person in a global war on zombies.

I also laughed out loud (accidentally) at some very conspicuous product placement.  Really, there’s this one part that should be an actual commercial.  It would be a really good commercial.  The coolest guy in the world wants the product, celebrates with the product, and then everybody runs toward the product.  (Of course, it would make an even better commercial for the competitor, showing that its product is not for mob-mentality zombies.)

Best Scene:
The little speech Dr. Fassbach gives to Gerry as they fly off on their mission together is really great.  Up to that point, I was thinking, “Boy, for a movie that’s supposed to feature Brad Pitt and zombies, this sure does deliver.”  But when Fassbach started talking, I realized that World War Z was going to deliver a bit more.  I was so pleasantly surprised.

What he says there is just so interesting.  Not only is it compelling and well written, but it’s also vital information that (thankfully) Gerry is enough of a thinker to remember, reflect on, and make use of.

But that’s just the scene that first stood out as something more and caught my attention. 

The best (and most memorable) part of the movie is the stuff that happens in Israel.  Now, obviously, it’s not like end-of-the-world movies never feature Jerusalem.  But often the movies that go out of their way to focus on Jerusalem turn out to be a bit disappointing, less than smart, lazy.

This one is very clever.  Gerry Lane’s entire conversation with Mossad leader Jurgen Warmbruggen really fascinated me.  I found myself wondering, Is the guy who wrote the book Jewish, maybe even Israeli, or maybe someone just interested in Israel, some historian?  Warmbruggen’s line of reasoning makes a crazy kind of sense, and yet I don’t remember hearing anything quite like that as a plot element in a movie before.  And the stuff about our unwillingness to prepare for things we don’t want to believe are happening is, in its own way, brilliant.  There’s an incredibly interesting subtext to this movie.   I didn’t really go in expecting to think.

Best Scene Visually:
The scramble over the wall (shown briefly in every trailer for the film I’ve seen) is in some ways the most satisfying scene in the movie.  For one thing, it’s a great visual metaphor.  There’s trouble in the world?  Well then, let’s just build a great big wall and keep everybody out of here but us.  Let’s isolate ourselves from the problem and try to ignore it.  What’s that you say?  They’re climbing over the wall??????  Who could have foreseen that?

Lane also gets an important clue in this scene.  This movie is great about being pointed yet artful all at once.  It definitely draws our attention to certain things, but we look because we enjoy the experience of watching.  It’s never clunky.

Best Action Sequence:
This movie is mostly action, and the action is mostly chase scenes of various types (run away and don’t look back, run away and kill whatever you can, move quickly and silently to evade capture…until you have to run away).  The chase sequences are like flashy setpieces, and we move from one to the next until the film finally stops.

Normally I’m not big on action.  (I mean, I like action movies, just not the actual action.)  Lots of times I lose focus from a kind of sensory overload and can’t even follow what’s happening.  (And sometimes that’s best because in certain movies, the whole purpose of the action scenes is to create the most pointless, extravagant, expensive, outlandish CGI explosion bonanza of all time.)
But this movie has action scenes that are—how can I put this?—pretty.  This probably will not sound like an endorsement to some action fans, but don’t worry.  There’s plenty of zombie carnage involved, too.  But even though there’s danger and disgusting zombies, there’s always a certain underlying elegance to the scenes themselves.  Everything that happens is very fluid, like a flowing river, and Marco Beltrami’s accompanying score always seems the ideal complement to the frenzied flight.  We feel the heightened suspense of the frenzied chaos.  The threat is menacing and palpable, but it still looks good as it’s unfolding on the screen.  There’s a well-choreographed quality to the action scenes, but it’s not obtrusive.  The characters experience fear, pain, panic, and watching, we feel their urgency, but we feel it as an odd kind of pleasure, like a delicious second-hand endorphin rush that at moments is truly exhilarating.

I really enjoyed watching the flight and pursuit.  And, as an added plus, the action scenes made total sense to me.  When it comes to action movies, maybe I don’t always understand how certain weapons work, or why various buildings must explode, but running away?  I totally get that.  And if a disease-ridden zombie horde were chasing me, you’d better believe I’d run.  Trust me, I flinched when the guy sitting next to me cleared his throat because I didn’t want to get his exhaled germs on my hands—and the guy sitting next to me was my husband.  If somebody was going to infect me with zombie plague, I would run like Hell.

That said, my favorite action sequence was the bicycle race through the rain—because you don’t go into a blockbuster zombie movie expecting to see that on screen!

(I was kidding just now, by the way.  It was not my husband who exhaled germs on me.  It was the stranger sitting on my other side.  My husband is well aware that I am crazy and knows that coughing in my direction is a bad idea.)

The Negatives:
As long as it’s on the screen, World War Z pretty successfully sustains the illusion of being far more substantial than it actually is.  There’s really not a whole lot to it.  In one way, it’s just a bunch of cool, big-budget chase scenes strung together by a premise that is bigger on menace than actual resolution.  (If you think of the whole thing as a metaphor for real-world problems, it’s actually kind of depressing because it gives you the idea that the only “solution” possible is stalling long enough to feel some glimmer of hope and maybe dying before we learn the hope was in vain.  Well maybe that’s an overly negative interpretation.  Maybe it’s just vague at the ending because it’s trying to launch a franchise.  Let’s go for that instead.  Let’s hope.)

The final act of the movie is the weakest, but it’s still quite enjoyable to watch.  (It really does feel like Jurassic Park, though, with zombies in place of raptors.)  To me, it felt like they actually arrived at a solution half an hour before the movie ended, but then they realized, “Well, that’s not actually very exciting for the ending of a movie, some guy having the right idea!  Let’s add another scene of zombie evasion/running away.”  To make the movie interesting, Gerry Lane not only has to go from A to B to C, he has to get to A, make a realization, and then RUN AWAY.  Get to B, find something out, and then RUN AWAY!  And so on.  The last episode of running away feels like it’s just thrown in there because the audience needs to look at something exciting in order to get a satisfying sensation of closure.  After watching every sequence of the film conclude with Gerry dramatically running away, we’d feel ripped off if we didn’t get some variation on that as part of the ending.

Those who have read the book may find more to criticize here since I’ve heard there are significant changes.  But I know nothing about the book (except that I’d like to read it now because some ideas expressed in the film intrigue me), so I’m the wrong person to ask.  For the most part, the movie works.

This will never be my favorite movie because I like more humor, more dialogue, less action, (no zombies!), but I can’t find fault with much about World War Z.  If you’re looking for an elegantly made zombie film that keeps you on the edge of your seat yet also provides aesthetically pleasing scenes and some fascinating social commentary, this movie is as perfect as you could hope for.  It’s one of the better films I’ve seen so far this summer, actually.  It’s fast-paced, exciting, coherent, and well-acted with some thought-provoking lines, memorable scenes, and the most exhilarating plane crash I’ve seen since Flight.  

If you’re looking to spend an evening at the movies, you could definitely do worse than World War Z. (Seriously, if you don’t pick this movie, odds are you’ll pick something at least marginally worse.  I've seen most of the other movies playing right now.  I know.)  World War Z is pretty solid summer entertainment with plenty of excitement and a few ideas that may stick with you after the credits roll.


We've been having so much fun going to the pool everyday, and it's helping us both lose weight.  Penelope's very excited about learning to swim.  Yesterday, her favorite thing was to launch herself off one of us and "swim" to the other without her floaty.  She believes that she's swimming like an Olympic gold medalist during this time; in reality, she has a better chance of qualifying for the long jump.  She's still pretty impressive and is completely undetered by sinking.

This evening, she was delighted to get rid of us as usual when we went out for date night.  But when we came home, she and Mom were up in Nellie's bedroom reading Bunnicula.  Apparently, she declared she was "so tired" and went up to bed.  A few minutes later, Mom went to check on her and found her crying, saying that she was just so disappointed that we hadn't had time to swim today.  So she's inherited her brother's love of swimming, and her mother's sense of melodrama.

Once Derrick and I returned, she recovered from her dramatic fatigue and played a few levels of Super Luigi with us.  She loves to play as the Nabbit, and she's very overzealous.  I never get any power ups at all.  She nabs everything immediately.

Anyway, tomorrow we'll swim again, but first we're going over to Christina's house for a playdate with Will.  Penelope keeps expressing a desire to hold "Baby Sylvie" but Sylvie is a little old for that now, I think.  I keep saying, "Well if you can get her to hold still..."

I'm in a pretty great mood at the moment because 1) I enjoyed going to the movie 2) I totally figured out the perfect ending for my book and now have only to write the last two chapters, and 3)What was the third thing?  Hmmm... Oh yeah, as of this morning, I've lost 21 pounds since I started in mid April.  I think that's pretty good.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Penelope's Sentences

1.  Pupcake answered the door, and he found his friend Brownie standing there.  And then he said, "Hi cousin!"

2.  Pupcake was starving until he got a bone from his master.

3.  Pupcake was drinking his water.  He was lapping up his water.

4.  Pupcake's cousin was starving, so they both lapped up their water.  They each gave the other their presents.  One was a bone, and one was a squeaky bone.  I also got a pizza for myself.  I answered the door, and it was my cheese pizza.  It was very tasty!

Nellie's making  pretty good progress with Amelia Bedelia and the Cat.  I have her read three to four pages every time, and it seems to be the perfect level for her.  The Bunnicula book was just a tad too hard (even though she really wanted to read it).  We read the first chapter of that, then decided to table it until she gets a little more advanced.  But here are some of the words I wrote down as possible "sentence" words:  scratched, purred, tiger, saucer, lapped, starving, sandwich, offered, phone, dialed, answered, and city. I think for her age, she's doing well to be able to read words like those.

She didn't even have a problem with most of them--although "answered" and "starving" tripped her up.  She also reads "tiny tiger" every time she sees "tiger," so we spent a long time staring at the word and saying, "tie-GRRRRR" which should help her remember.  (If nothing else, she found that exercise extremely giggle inducing.)

Penelope definitely is not big on sounding out.  She reads by recognition mainly.  The plus side of that is that once she learns a word, she usually remembers it.  Maybe the second time it trips her up again, but by the third time, she gets it right, and she has a very good memory.  As a result, she can read all kinds of "hard" words but gets tripped up by prepositions, articles, pronouns--stuff that looks easy, but she'll read them interchangably.  Like sometimes she says "this" instead of "it."  Of course, part of the problem is that it's difficult to get her to sit still oriented in a sensible way toward the book.

Most of the time, she's very silly.  That's fine for her age, though, I think.

Me: What rhymes with "help"?
Penelope: Telp.
Me: What's "telp"?
Penelope: It's a nickname for television.
Me: Who uses that nickname?
Penelope: Nobody. Have you ever heard of it?

Me: If I have "ear," what do I need to make "fear"?
Penelope: (dramatically) No! How can I say it???? (In mock alarm) That's going to make fear come alive! Don't even say that word! Don't say it! I won't tell you because "fear" is too scary! "Ear" is much safer the way it is!

Sunday, June 23, 2013


While I'm thinking about it, here are a couple of the phrases Penelope currently uses that crack me up. 

1.) "a little bit scandalizing":  I've taught her the word scandalous, but it didn't seem to take.  She says this all the time, probably multiple times every single day.  She prefers jokes that are "a little bit scandalizing."  She frequently hesitates to tell us dramatic announcements claiming that, "This is going to be a little bit scandalizing."  

2.) "much senser" or "much more senser":  Every time she comes up with a solution she feels is more pragmatic than the way we're currently doing it, Penelope makes a suggestion, then grins and says, "That makes much senser" or "I thought that made much more senser."  

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Summer Movie Diary: Monsters University

Date: June 22, 2013
Time: 8:35 pm
Place: Tinsel Town
Company: Derrick, Grayson, Penelope, Grandma, Grandpa
Food:  Whoppers, mixed Icee
Runtime:  1 hour, 42 minutes
Rating: G
Director:  Dan Scanlon

Quick Impressions:
I love watching movies in a theater packed full of little children.  You never have to wonder how the rest of the audience is reacting to any given moment on screen.  You know.  I wish adults would watch movies with the same unguarded enthusiasm.  Nothing makes a cinematic experience feel more powerful than the laughter, gasps, whines, shrieks, wails, and innocent comments of tiny viewers who think that nobody else can hear them because they’re “whispering.”  (I remember during one tense moment in Gremlins, whispering in grave concern to my mother, “What are they doing to poor Gizmo?" When the entire theater burst out laughing, I was so shocked to have been overheard.)

Kids are honest, and most of them seemed to like Monsters University though not as much as they liked the previews (particularly the teaser for Frozen and every single spot related to Despicable Me 2). 

I saw the movie with my husband, our children, and my parents, and everybody enjoyed it, though when we were discussing our favorite parts on the car ride home, my four-year-old volunteered, “My favorite part was the one before where they were with Boo.”

I heartily agree with her.  The best part about Monsters University is that it reminds you of Monsters, Inc.

There’s no question of this movie surpassing the original.  Monsters, Inc. is a great film.  Monsters University is just a pretty good G-rated movie with a few laugh-out-loud moments, lots of action, and memorable, well drawn characters.  Here’s the thing, though.  I’ve reviewed at least twenty-five movies this year (more than one of them animated), and this is the first one that’s been rated G.  It’s not often these days that a film manages to entertain all age groups by giving us a story that’s both authentic and exciting without being offensive or terrifying.  Monsters University is not a masterpiece, but it’s a sweet, funny, unambitious little story that should keep anybody interested for all 102 minutes that it occupies the screen.

The Good:
Monstropolis has always been a rich and vibrant place, and in this movie we get to see more of it.  Those with a nostalgic streak should be happy to hear that we do spend a bit of time back on the scare floor at the factory.  For the most part, though, the prequel takes place in parts of Mike and Sully’s world that haven’t yet been featured on screen.

Given the title, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we spend the most time on the campus of Monsters University, the sort of place that might show up in your dreams the night after you binge read all the Harry Potter books on the sofa while your roommate watches Animal HouseRevenge of the NerdsPolice Academy, and the original Monsters, Inc. in the same room. 

Basically, if you take a bunch of monsters, send them to Hogwarts, and put them in the types of wacky scenarios featured in every single movie about college made in the 70s or 80s, you’ve got Monsters University.  (Come to think of it, that basic formula for college flicks is still being used today.  If Pitch Perfect has less singing and more monsters, for example, it and Monsters University would basically be the same movie.)

The results of this odd mash-up aren’t exactly original, but they are pretty fun and quite delightful to look at.  I do think that the Monstropolis featured in the first film has more potential than this follow-up delivers on, but I still think the campus looks cool and exciting.  There’s enough going on visually to keep smaller children entertained while their older siblings focus on the plot, and the visually rich setting works for adults, too.  Occasionally, the movie felt a little slow to me, but the monstery collegiate setting gave me plenty to look at and kept me from checking out or feeling bored.

But the movie’s real strength is its characters.  They’re well drawn (both by the animators and the writers), and the actors playing them couldn’t be better.  This is Billy Crystal’s most winning performance since he used to guest star on all those game shows.  He’s really amazing as Mike, and John Goodman is always delightful as Sully.  It’s also nice that Steve Buscemi returns as Randall.  Even though his role is much smaller in this film, it’s not just a throw-away part.  We get a lot of groundwork for his future relationship with Mike and Sully that is bound to make fans of Monsters, Inc. smile. 

Several new characters appear in this outing, and the clear standout (in terms of performance) is Helen Mirren as Dean Hardscrabble.  Not only does Mirren give a great performance, but the character looks so aloof, menacing, creepy (and at moments disgusting).  She’s a very welcome addition and makes the most of all of her scenes.

The whole gang at Oozma Kappa is great, too, voiced by Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, and Charlie Day.  Definitely there were moments when I’d think, “I really don’t like this character,” but then one by one, they all won me over eventually.  Art (Charlie Day), the fuzzy guy who looks like the love child of a Muppet and an Alphacritter (specifically Moot) is a welcome diversion from the get go (though he always feels vaguely familiar.  Maybe it’s just that he reminds me of Seth Rogan, which makes no sense really, because, Seth Rogan is neither purple nor M-shaped).

I also really enjoyed Aubrey Plaza.  (Alfred Molina is also good as Professor Knight, but I never would have recognized him.   I think the actor and the character are underutilized.  I didn’t recognize Nathan Fillion as Johnny, either.)

To be honest, Billy Crystal’s performance as Mike Wazowski by itself makes Monsters University a film worth watching.  In Monsters, Inc., of course, Mike and Sully are co-protagonists, but as the film goes on, Sully and his blossoming relationship with Boo take the lion’s share of the spotlight.  The Mike/Sully friendship is still central, but Sully’s warm response to the child suggests that he is the lead and Mike is his sidekick. 

This time around, however, Mike is the monster at the movie’s emotional center, and relating to him is so easy that it actually frightened me.  In fact, I identified with him so much that when his persistent optimism finally gave way to the feelings of inadequacy, defeat, and despair that I had seen coming a mile off, I sank into a mini-depression myself.  (Emphasis on the "mini" because it lasted all of forty-five seconds, but it felt interminable.)  I thought, Now he finally sees the truth about himself, and there’s no hope for him anymore. I was seriously so sad.  In fact, in that moment, I suddenly realized that I’d been clinging to a little bit of dread throughout the entire film because I knew a moment like this was coming, and I couldn’t see past it.  Then when we suddenly see that despite all of this, there is still hope for Mike to have a bright future, I was so incredibly surprised and happy. 

Now I’ll grant that perhaps I got a bit too emotionally involved, but I’m positive that I wasn’t the only one who found Mike extremely sympathetic.  The film’s opening is highly successful at making the audience identify with (or at the very least feel for, whisper about) Mike. When you watch a movie with a room packed full of little children, it’s no great mystery how the audience feels about the characters.  You can hear their ongoing reaction quite plainly, and all the “ooohs,” “ohhhhs,” laughter, sighs of concern, whispered comments plainly revealed that everybody felt invested in Mike’s happiness from scene one.

In the end, what makes this movie something special is the relationships between the characters, particularly the bond that forms between Mike and Sully. 

The music is also really charming.  I wasn’t so sure about the score at first, but it really grew on me, and I left the theater loving it.  The soundtrack is also good.

Best Scene:
This is definitely a movie that improves as it goes, and the best part (without a doubt) happens when Mike and Sully go through the door.  (Even my daughter—when forced to answer based on this particular movie only—singled out aspects of this sequence as her most and least favorite parts of Monsters University.)

Why the movie doesn’t go here a little sooner is anybody’s guess.  (I mean, literally, within the context of the plot as it stands, I understand why they go here when they do.)  But the story becomes so much better, so much bigger, so much more unpredictable at this time.

Lots of good things happen beyond that door.  The scene by the lake is very touching.  But the best thing in the entire movie is definitely the part when Mike and Sully decide to be really scary (scarier than they’ve even been before).  It’s funny.  It’s exciting.  It’s explosive.  It’s everything I wanted from a prequel to Monsters, Inc.

Best Scene Visually:
Take your pick.  The whole movie looks appealing.  In fact, Pixar and Dreamworks have been dazzling us for so long that I think we sometimes forget just how impressive their animation is.

The scaring classroom looks so cool, and Dean Hardscrabble makes a killer entrance.  Another scene I love is the party at the frat house.  In the summer of 2011, during a trip to Disneyland, we wandered into California Adventure very late at night and took our kids on the Monsters, Inc. ride over and over while the streets were full of the lights and sounds of ElecTRONica.  For what I think are obvious reasons, the frat house party really reminded me of that delightful night.

The race through “obstacles” also looks kind of cool, but it annoyed me a little because it seemed lazy somehow, like a less thoughtful version of the jellyfish race in Finding Nemo or a sequence in a run-of-the-mill video game.

Funniest Scene:
Don’t let the cluttered plot fool you.  This movie is essentially character driven, and the moments that work best are the dramatic ones.  This isn’t a joke-a-minute laugh fest.  That said, the movie still contains a lot of comedy.  I laughed out loud—actually, in real life, laughed out loud, making actual sound—several times.

Probably my favorite thing was Mike’s list, the one he makes not long after moving into his dorm room.  It probably won’t seem as funny to everyone (though my mother also laughed, but then, she knows me.  When I was in college, both my roommate and I were great list makers.)  I also liked the bits about the mom (though some of them were kind of lazy).

I don’t want to give away any of the actual jokes, but there were some legitimately hilarious moments.  (Usually, though, it’s the kind of thing where you laugh out loud, then fall silent, not where you go on laughing until you can’t breathe.  There’s really not as much sustained humor.)

Best Action Sequence:
This movie has tons of action, but most of it is less clever than what I’ve come to expect from Pixar.  Lots of times, I felt like the writers were saying to themselves, “Now let’s see.  They haven’t run around for a while.  People will get bored.  Throw in some running around.”

This movie’s structure is quite a bit like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, but Harry Potter faces challenges that are far more interesting and wizard specific.  All of the challenges in this movie are fun to watch, but for all their talk about different scaring techniques, and specificity, and choosing the right way to approach a child, all of the stuff they actually did felt a little mindless and non-specific.  (The exception, of course, would be the final challenge.)

Aside from the ending, probably the strongest action scene is the bit in the library simply because it’s big and dangerous and marks a serious turn in the group dynamic.

The Negatives:
It took me a while to warm up to this movie.  My daughter is right.  The best part clearly happens in the previous movie because Monsters University is in every way dwarfed by its predecessor. 

For one thing, that is a film for small children and parents of small children.  Its plot and characters work best for people who know somebody like Boo and react to her either like Sully (basically a parent) or like Mike (somebody childless whose friend or relative has become a parent).  Its primary message (children’s laughter is more powerful than fear) is clearly aimed at parents (and perhaps tyrants).  (And, of course, children can take away other messages like don’t be afraid of the monster under your bed, always be there for your friends). 

Monsters University is a little harder for small children to relate to because it’s about going to college and finding out who you really are (as opposed to who you want to be).  As the movie opens, I’m sure all the kids can relate to elementary school Mike who has big dreams about his future.  But I don’t know that they can relate to some of the interior struggles of college-aged Mike nearly as well.  (I’m not saying that they stop liking Mike, but few five-year-olds consider that their dream of being a firefighter may never come true because of their chronic asthma or whatever).

A lot of the stuff that happens in Monsters University is more relatable to people who have gone to college or seen a movie about going to college or grown up or grown up seeing old movies about going to college.  There’s still visual humor and cute jokes and touching friendship moments for kids, but this movie is neither as simple nor as profound as Monsters Inc.  It would not make a perfect picture book.  As a picture book, it would be a (fun) convoluted mess.

In that messy/complicated/not-quite-for-little-kids aspect, Monsters University reminds me a bit of Cars 2—except Cars 2 was much worse since it was slower with a plot that was not only complicated but convoluted.  This movie isn’t nearly as alienating to children trying to understand what’s going on, but it’s not as accessible as something like Monsters Inc. either.

Plus even though the characters are moving toward a goal, the whole thing feels episodic, strung together, and predictable.  The longest section of the movie (aka the middle) is like a rehash of other college-themed movies.  The basic conclusion to this portion of the film seems pretty obvious from the start, so while it’s fun to watch, it’s not as gripping as it could be.

Also a lot of the action sequences feel pretty uninspired compared to some of Pixar’s other films particularly.  All the stuff is fun to watch, but sometimes it feels like it’s just thrown in there so that something exciting will happen.  The chase scene at the end of the Monsters, Inc. visit definitely springs to mind and even the event where they have to avoid contamination.  It’s fun to watch, but it feels kind of forced. 

The movie is also a little slow.  Actually, the problem really is not how little happens at the beginning, but how much happens near the end.  The final act of the movie is so much more interesting and unpredictable (and quite literally explosive) than what’s come before.  A movie that was pleasant suddenly becomes excellent and potentially re-watchable.  It’s kind of a shame they didn’t get here sooner.  I realize a set-up is necessary for a powerful conclusion, but the conclusion is just so much better and more fun to watch than the set-up.  It’s kind of a shame.  At least the movie ends on a high note, though.  And we get some nice cameos by some friendly faces/voices.

I’ve always thought that Monsters Inc. is one of Pixar’s best.  My mother loves it, too, and not just because Boo looks exactly like my little sister (though that helps).  The premise is so novel, the world so intriguing, the characters so likable, the moral so true.  Much like a brilliant children’s picture book, Monsters Inc. is simple yet profound.

Monsters University, on the other hand, is not simple at all.  Everything is extremely complicated.  Much of the profundity is also missing.  (The movie does make a good point of its own, but the laughter > scream thing—always a good reminder to parents—is a tough act to follow.)  And the even though the plot is more complicated (sometimes cluttered), it is far less original.

Still it’s a fun watch.  We all liked it (most of us more than we expected to).  The laughs are scattered, but some of them are big.  The plot is serviceable, the action is plentiful, the colors are bright, the setting is fun, the acting is great, the music really grows on you, the character development is outstanding, and Billy Crystal gives a  particularly memorable performance.  If you have a little monster of your own, and you’re dying to get out of the house, Monsters University is probably the perfect solution.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Penelope's Sentences

1.  Dinah lifted Pupcake into the air and threw him into the road.  Then she ran over him.  And then she took him over to her house and ate him for dinner.

2.  Dinah gave Pupcake a lift to her home and locked him in her closet.  Then she--I can't bear to say this!--got Pupcake out of the closet, told him not to look, and jumped on his tummy with her claws until there were kitty marks all over his tummy.  How rude that was!

3.  Dinah put Pupcake in a suit like a weatherman.  Then she chained him in her bed and threw away the key.  Then she slept in a different room, but Pupcake had to stay awake all night because she told him he had better.  Dinah wasn't being very nice.

4.  Dinah lifted Pupcake up and put him in her tree outside.  So he had to be in the cold night.  The weatherman said it was thirty degrees that night. Then she gave him a lift to the grocery store and put him in a cart.  She took the cart home with her and put strong chains around Pupcake.  Then she locked the chain and threw away the key, so he was in the cart until I came home.  I told Dinah never to do that again.  Pupcake got out thanks to me because I had a knife and a wrench.  Thank goodness!


Penelope: Dinah lifted Pupcake into the air and threw him into the road.  Then she ran over him.  And then she took him over to her house and ate him for dinner.  I think Dinah's so naughty.  She's a baddie mcmaddie!
Me:  I think that's a little more than naughty!
Penelope: Bad?
Me: At least!
Penelope: I think bad is enough because if she were evil that would be the worst.
Me: So what would be evil?
Penelope: A vampire.

Penelope's Sentences

1.  Dinah was in a tizzy because she had to go to work.  "Oh my gosh, I'm late!" she said.

2.  Dinah went to the umbrella store and died because somebody killed her there.  It was just some weirdo.  Nobody knows why he did it.

2 (alt).  Dinah's umbrella was red.  She took it out with her to go in the rain and take a little walk.

3.  Dinah borrowed Cookie's umbrella so she could have two of them.  She was going to use them to make a rocket ship, but then she died because she was so sick from traveling in space.  She fell--kerplop!--right on the kitchen floor, so they took her to the emergency room.  But it was already too late for Dinah.

4.  Dinah's sister was in a big tizzy because she didn't want her sister to borrow her umbrella.  Dinah needed three umbrellas to make her new rocket ship.

Me: Can you tell me a sentence using the word "umbrella"?
Penelope: Dinah went to the umbrella store and died because somebody killed her there. It was just some weirdo. Nobody knows why he did it.
Me: Well, that's a great sentence, but could you maybe try to make a sentence that will show me what "umbrella" means?
Penelope: You know what "umbrella" means.
Me: I don't know because I'm from outer space, and I've never heard of an umbrella before.
Penelope: It's funny that I'm just learning this now. I don't think I believe you at all.
Me: Well, if Star Girl were asking you about the word "umbrella," could you think of a sentence that might help her understand what it is? Like if I wanted to use the word "cup" in a sentence, I might say, "Fill up my cup with water, so I can take a drink."
Penelope: Can I have a cup? I want a cup to drink water. Please? I'm getting so thirsty now.
Me (as she giggles): Are you trying to agitate me?
Penelope: I don't think so. I don't know what "agitate" means. Can you use it in a sentence for me?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Summer Movie Diary: The Kings of Summer

Date: June 19, 2013
Time: 7:50 pm
Place: Regal Arbor
Company: Derrick
Food:  Icee, popcorn
Runtime: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Rating: R
Director:  Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Quick Impressions:
Leaving the theater, I said to my husband, “Coming of age movies about boys are always so baffling from a girl’s point of view.  Why is it that every story about becoming a man and taking charge of your own life seems to involve going out in the woods and killing a bear?  When I was a teenager, I felt frustrated by my lack of control over my life all the time.  But I never once thought, ‘I know how to fix this.  I’ll go off into the woods and kill a bear.’”

My husband immediately responded, “Yes, but a lot of girls seem to think, ‘I’ve got to have a child of my own, and then I’ll be a woman.’  That’s kind of the same thing.”

I was totally flattered.  I thought, Wow!  I’ve already had a child of my own.  That’s the female equivalent of going out into the woods, stalking, killing, skinning, cooking, and eating a bear!  Being a woman is clearly the better deal!

I won’t pretend my pregnancy was easy, but even allowing for the mysterious premature labor that resulted in an emergency C-section and three month NICU stay, I’d still rather have a baby than kill a bear!  And since I’ve had the baby, I thought, I’m now like the female equivalent of a man!  And I didn’t even have to kill or skin anything!  How awesome is that?

I was really very pleased with the compliment until my husband explained that he wasn’t saying the two things are equal, just pointing out that the “killing a bear” business is driven by instinct that’s hard to explain rationally (much like the female drive to reproduce).

And I thought, Whatever, I’m still not killing a bear.

That said, if anything about this anecdote appealed to you, then you’ll probably enjoy The Kings of Summer, a quirky little indie film with an off-kilter sense of humor, a surprising dramatic side, and pretty impressive cinematography.  (And don’t worry, nobody actually kills a bear, though there is a pretty graphic skinning of a rabbit that might bother some people.)

The Good:
When the jokes hit, the film is very funny.  Some of the lines are really a scream.  Often I’d think, “I’m going to remember that one,” “I’m going to write that down,” “I’m going to put that on a T-shirt.”  Chris Galletta’s script isn’t perfect, but it does have all kinds of highly quotable one-liners (some because they’re just so random they’re hilarious, others because they’re surprisingly profound for something so seemingly silly).  Because of the quotability of the lines and the larger-than-life characters who often seem more like caricatures, I’d be surprised if The Kings of Summer didn’t become a cult film. 

Many of the scenes seem improvised.  They may not be, of course.  I know nothing about how the script was written.  But some of the lines are so random, and much of the dialogue is awkward and strange (which is sometimes a good thing, sometimes not).  When the characters have a good rapport, this works out better.  Megan Mullally and Marc Evan Jackson (playing Patrick’s parents) pair perfectly and have wonderful scenes together.  Nick Offerman (playing Joe’s dad) on the other hand, shares the screen with so many different characters, and some of them do not give him as much to work with as others.  Offerman gives a great performance in the film, though, and when he’s working with people with whom he seems in sync (like the two cops played by Mary Lynn Rajskub and Thomas Middleditch) he’s brilliantly funny.

The first five minutes of the movie make it clear that the film’s not going for realism—it’s more like hyper-realism where everyone’s foibles, character flaws, and general level of wit is exaggerated for comic purposes.  In some ways, the supporting characters behave as if they’re doing improv or sketch comedy.  Life isn’t really this funny, but the movie is, and it establishes this immediately.

Just because the movie opts for zaniness over realism, though, doesn’t mean that its entire purpose is just to make us laugh.  While the characters are exaggerated, the story still has an emotional core that feels extremely authentic to the desperate-to-come-of-age adolescent experience.  (And that kind of explains why all the adults are so weird, too.  That’s not what they’re really like.  That’s what they seem like to their teenagers.)

In fact, for a while there just before the final act, Joe’s life becomes so real and pitiable that it’s almost depressing.  Lots of the characters and situations are so exaggerated that they seem ridiculous at times.  But what happens with Kelly, and particularly Joe’s response to these unwelcome developments, seems one-hundred percent real.

By the way, all of the young actors are very good.  I remember Gabriel Basso (Patrick) from Super 8.  I liked pretty much the entire young cast in that, and I think Basso is actually markedly better in this.  Both Basso and Nick Robinson (Joe) do a great job of giving nuanced and authentic dramatic performances yet still displaying marvelous comic timing.  I think Basso is a bit better with the comedy, Robinson with the drama. 

Biaggio is one of those characters designed to elicit reactions.  Clearly the idea is that fans will latch onto him and end up saying things like, “Wow!  That was classic Biaggio.”  Personally, I think he’s not as great a character as he could be.  (I’ll say more about that later.)  But Moses Arias does seem like a very talented young actor, and he certainly gives a memorable performance.

Erin Moriarty kept reminding me of a young Anna Paquin (not of the young Anna Paquin.  She’s not actually that much like Paquin when she was young.  It’s more that Moriarty reminded me of what Anna Paquin is like right now except Moriarty is younger).  I liked the actress, though the character was not my favorite.  (It’s not that Kelly is a bad character, but she’s seen almost entirely from Joe’s point of view, so she doesn’t get the development she needs not to seem like practically a stereotype.)  Watching this movie, I got that idea that becoming a man is so difficult because nobody will tell you what you ought to be doing.  (Certainly, nobody will tell me!  I find the whole process deeply mysterious!)  On the other hand, becoming a woman is difficult because everybody tells you what you ought to be doing.  This movie does short-change Kelly a little bit.  Joe does not understand her, really.  The movie seems to understand her a little better, but it’s hard to tell.  But Moriarty is giving a terrific performance that partially makes up for the lack of focus on her character.  She seems very natural and genuine in the role and brings just the qualities that are needed to make Kelly seem like a real person.

Allison Brie also gives a really outstanding performance as Joe’s older sister Heather, possibly the one character in the movie (aside from Joe and Patrick) who seems like a normal person who could actually exist just the way she’s played in the film.  (My husband said afterwards that this is probably because an admired older sibling would be the one adult that a teen might perceive as normal, and I agree.)  Brie is really good in this.  In fact, in my experience, she’s really good in everything.

The cinematography in the film is remarkable (probably the film’s strongest, most mature-seeming component—except for all the slow-mo moments that are a little too impressed with themselves.  I want to say that while the writing has real potential, the cinematography is already there.  And yet when I do say that I sound pretentious and ridiculous, don't I?   What I mean is, though the film is engaging, I think the writer and director will both give us even better material in the future.  The cinematographer has already won me over).

I also liked the soundtrack, though the film does have the feel of, “I’m so cool, and I know it.”  I guess if you’re so cool, you might as well know it.  In theory, the very coolest people shouldn’t even be aware of their own coolness, but we all know that’s not the way things play out in real life.  (That makes me think of Marge Simpson saying, “Well, how the hell do you be cool?”  I guess when you don't feel cool enough yourself to critique how coolly the cool manifest their coolness, you can always fall back Simpsons quotes and hope that everybody forgets about you entirely.)

Best Scene:
My favorite scene in the entire movie is probably the heart-to-heart Joe’s dad Frank (Nick Offerman) and Patrick’s dad (Marc Evan Jackson) share on the fishing boat.  There are many scenes in this film that feel like improvisation (though they might just be scripted in a quirky way).  The success of these exchanges really depends on the chemistry of the actors involved.  Offerman and Jackson really pair well together.  What they say is genuinely funny and also surprisingly touching (and significant).  While the audience is smiling, each character is making some serious discoveries on his own, yet they remain amusingly out of step with one another.  The scene is both funny (without being too weird) and crucial to character and plot development.

My husband and I also agreed that the scene when Joe doesn’t wake up seemed awfully authentic and quite well done.

Best Line That Wasn’t a Joke:
I really like Alison Brie’s character’s reply when her dad asks her, “I’m not a bastard, am I?”  That father/daughter dynamic felt very real, and I love the way the character has learned to communicate with her father, giving him very helpful, necessary criticism in a way that will not damage their relationship.  The father and son have a similar dynamic—i.e. lots of sarcastic/sardonic banter—but Joe seems to perceive it as directed and spiteful whereas Heather seems to realize it's simply her father’s communication style.  Not only does Heather help her Dad realize something here, but the moment also shows that Joe's relationship with his father could improve.

Best Scene Visually:
I was so impressed with the cinematography in this film which is by far the strongest component of The Kings of Summer.  Sometimes the jokes don’t hit.  At times, the tonal shifts come so quickly that it’s hard to know how to react.  And occasionally, the story seems a little thin.  But the cinematography is wonderful.  Not only do we get beautiful, stunning shots of nature, but we also get some unusual framing. 

My favorite shot in the whole movie was very near the end when we’re shown two cars approaching a stop-light.   We find ourselves looking up at the red stoplight from a point of view just behind the minivan’s red brake lights.  It’s a very unusual shot.  Not only did I love the way it looked, but it really got my attention. 

In the scene, something significant happens between two characters in an entirely non-verbal exchange.  Then at the end of the scene, one car turns, and the other goes forward through the now green light.  (Overall, I think the changes in the boys’ behavior as how they see one another changes is very interesting.)

That’s why I liked the cinematography in this film so much.  Not only does it look impressive, but it looks impressive for a reason.  The visuals are used to convey meaning (sometimes more than the dialogue, I think).  I definitely came away with the idea that human society is so ridiculous and (when viewed from the outside in) bizarre, whereas nature is steady and real, and there are natural forces at work within us that can’t be stopped by what anybody else says or does.

Some of the slow-mo, close-up nature scenes seem a little bit too self-aware, but they still look cool.

Funniest Scene:
My husband mentioned in the car how much he enjoyed the scene with the cops and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”  I agree that Nick Offerman and the two cops work really well together. 

I personally really loved the moment when Patrick’s parents were determined to give him vegetable soup.  Patrick’s parents are really unreal, but exaggerated/hyper-hilarity is what Megan Mullally does best.  (I always liked her the best on Will and Grace except when they tried to move her to the center as the lead of an episode.  Some characters only really work when they’re in the periphery.)

The boys also have some great comedic moments, but while the lines seemed very quotable at the time, I’m having trouble remembering them now.

Best Action Sequence:
The opening scene (repeated later) of the boys dancing/drumming in the forest will definitely become iconic if the movie catches on.  That scene is the essence of The Kings of Summer, and I knew the moment that I saw it that the movie would be worth watching.  It’s worth watching just for that scene, to be honest.

And the moment when the snake first appears is absolutely chilling.

The Negatives:
When the jokes don’t land, they’re sometimes painful and baffling.  Sometimes, entire scenes drag on and on never really find the elusive hilarity they’re seeking.  After a while, this can get painful.  Just one example—for me, the bit with the delivery guy and the large wontons never really found its footing.  I will grant that Nick Offerman is still doing some very fine acting in this scene.  It’s working dramatically.  We’re getting that his character is very upset and more disturbed about his whole relationship with his son than he wants to let on.  But the scene also seems to want to be funny, and while occasionally it is, it never really gets to the comedic heights that it’s clearly aiming for.

One point in the movie’s favor, though, is that different jokes seem to work for different audience members.  Everybody laughs at some things.  And while the inverse is not true, it is true that on at least some of the occasions when I wasn’t amused, other people audibly were (and vice versa). 

I also think that the character of Biaggio is mishandled.  There are plenty of people who seem awfully weird in real life (especially when you don’t get to know them.  Sometimes I suspect that I am one of them).  And like everybody else in the movie, Biaggio isn’t playing a real guy.  He’s playing Joe’s perception of this weird kid Biaggio.  But sometimes I think they go too far with him, and that makes him less funny instead of funnier.  A Biaggio slightly more grounded in reality could be a lot funnier.  And some of his jokes are just so strange.  As just one example—the whole gay/cystic fibrosis thing is so bizarre that it could be funny because it’s just like, “What?!”  But then the thing is, Biaggio doesn’t seem to be joking at all, and Joe also seems to take what he is saying very seriously.  It’s at moments like these that the tone of the movie is hard to figure out.  I suppose that might be because everything is being filtered through Joe’s point of view, and Joe is extremely confused at that moment.  (Life isn't working out as he expected, and he's struggling to form an identity that can make sense of that.)  

But what really bothers me about Biaggio is that he feels like a gimmick.  And that really only bothers me because at moments the gimmick seems to work, but the movie can’t seem to make that last.  The actor is so talented and the idea behind the character is so solid that he could become iconic.  And maybe he will.  But I don’t know.  Maybe if I were a fifteen-year-old boy I’d like him better.  I’d rather hang out with him than kill a bear.  I’ll give him that much. 

The movie also occasionally has moments of trying to draw humor from pointing out that the characters are (absurdly) racist (and yet unaware of it) or showing their discomfort at being thought racist.  Society is so PC and considerate now, and racism, particularly perceived racism, makes us all so tense that, of course, comedy trying to catch the audience off balance is going to go there.  Unfortunately, most of these moments are less funny than they could have been.  So we’re left with the awkwardness and the tension, but we don’t get the comedic payoff that should reward us for enduring the tension.

Also the tonal shifts are hard to predict and sometimes hard to adjust to quickly enough.  The opening act of the movie features off-the-wall humor and too-quirky-to-be-real characters.  So you think, Ah, I see.  This is all very funny.  (What is it that Patrick’s parents say?  “We’re in pretend world?” “We must be in pretend world?”  Something like that.)  But then suddenly there’s this abrupt shift into a situation that’s not funny at all, and in fact, increasingly sad.  Now granted, this film is mostly from Joe’s perspective, and teenagers are notorious for their mood swings.  But the thing is, we’re not always with Joe.  Sometimes we appear to be distinctly outside Joe, and it’s difficult to know what to do when such unpredictable moments happen.  So I think the film definitely has a slight problem with tone and tonal transitions.

I also wish we didn’t have to watch the skinning of the rabbit.  I won’t say that it shouldn’t be in there because I think it’s a visual metaphor for Joe’s interior state and deliberate transition.  I don’t think the scene is bad for the film.  I just don’t like watching animals being skinned.  In fact, I was planning to complain about the film’s undeserved R-rating until I thought about how unexpectedly graphic this scene is.  Now it’s not like watching The Human Centipede or even a war documentary with real battle footage.  But it’s still a bit jarring given the whimsical tone of earlier scenes. (I’m not saying that it’s a misstep by the film because I do think the movie’s tonal shifts mirror the mood swings/personality changes/discoveries of the emerging young man, but it’s just hard to watch.  That’s all.) 

And—this is a minor thing—determining when the movie took place was pretty difficult for me.  I’m pretty sure in an early scene Patrick is playing the SNES version of Street Fighter II.  We still have that game on virtual console, and I still play it occasionally, but I’m…you know…old.  My stepson is much more likely to play games designed for the PS3 or Wii. (We don’t have an X-Box.)  At that moment, I started to think, Wait is this happening in the past?  (I also lived near a Boston Market in high school and never see those around anymore, but apparently there just aren’t any close to my house.)  But then his parents mention Hancock (sort of) as if it’s some old movie they’ve stumbled on, so I began to assume that it’s the present (though they are still using flip phones).  My husband suggested that it could take place in any time as it’s a timeless kind of story, and I suppose that works for me.

The Kings of Summer is definitely worth a look, though I can’t guarantee you’ll like what you see.  The movie is in turns so random and so sweet that it seems impossible to hate it, but I think that while some people will love it (actually, it seems made to generate a cult following), others may just as easily feel puzzled or only vaguely pleased. 

My husband and I thoroughly enjoyed the film, though we can easily see why others might not.  The cast is definitely very talented.  Of the adults, Nick Offerman and Alison Brie give very strong and likable performances, and Megan Mullally, Marc Evan Jackson, Mary Lynn Rajskub, and Thomas Middleditch are all extremely funny.  Young protagonists Nick Robinson and Gabriel Basso are both fantastic, Erin Moriarty is better than her role, and Moises Arias does a good job playing a character created to get attention. 

If you’re thinking, I’m looking for a movie that makes all adults seem hilariously insane, shows lots of slow-motion close-ups of flora and fauna set to slightly-too-cool music, suddenly distresses me to the point of near tears, teaches me how to skin a rabbit properly, and includes a wacky character named Biaggio who always says and does whatever least makes sense, then your typical night at the movies must have been such a soul-crushing disappointment—until now.  You’d better run to see this movie right away (if it’s even playing at a theater near you, and good luck with that)!